Belk closing another hit for Macon Mall

Telegraph staffMarch 21, 2012 

The hits keep coming at Macon Mall.

Months after Sears announced the closing of its store there, another anchor is planning to close.

Belk is shuttering its mall store in October to concentrate its efforts on its store in north Bibb County.

The mall, which once had six anchor stores, will be down to two -- J.C. Penney and Macy’s. Sears’ exit from the mall is planned for mid-May, and Belk is planning to close in early October.

“Belk believes the action is in the best long-term interests of the company and our shareholders,” Jessica Graham, Belk vice president of communications, stated in an e-mail Wednesday.

Graham said all associates at the Macon Mall store can apply for positions at other Belk locations.

The Macon Mall Belk will kick off a clearance sale July 22.

The announcement that Belk’s mall store is closing didn’t come as a shock to John Gibson, co-owner of the Augusta-based Hull Story Gibson Cos., which owns the mall.

Gibson said Tuesday that he knew Belk was planning to close the mall store when his company purchased the 1.4 million-square-foot enclosed Macon Mall in 2010.

“This is not a surprise,” Gibson said. “They advised us before (we purchased the mall) ... and we made our investment knowing Belk would leave.

“Each tenant has to do what’s in their best interest ... We have confidence in the Macon community and in the Macon Mall,” Gibson said, adding that he only wished his company purchased the mall a couple of years before it did. “We could have arrested some of this downward spiral,” he said. “We’re going to be fine one way or the other.”

Macon Mayor Robert Reichert agrees, saying he’s convinced the mall will remain a strong force in the community.

“I can certainly understand Belk’s decision to not operate two stores in the area, but I’m glad they are committed to remaining a presence in Macon,” Reichert said in an e-mail. “I am confident that with the remaining large retailers, ongoing renovations and improvements and new stores opening, the Macon Mall will remain a vibrant and regional shopping destination, as well as an anchor for the community.”

Belk’s long Macon history

Belk, which formerly was known as Belk Matthews, has been in Macon since it opened downtown in 1942. It closed that store and moved to Macon Mall in the mid-1970s.

In 1997, when the mall unveiled its 40-store, $50 million expansion, the then-423,000-square-foot shopping center more than doubled in size. It included new anchors Dillard’s and Parisian department stores and a two-story food court called Cafe Carousel. This gave the mall six anchors, along with J.C. Penney, Sears, Macy’s and Belk. It was the fourth-largest mall in Georgia at one time and mainly drew customers from 31 counties surrounding Macon.

In 2005, New Jersey-based The Lighthouse Group bought Macon Mall and the Burlington Mall in North Carolina for $166 million and used the two malls as collateral for a $141.2 million loan.

In 2006, the Saks department store chain sold its Parisian division to Belk for $285 million. Belk already was the nation’s largest privately owned department store company with 277 stores in 16 states. After the sale, it operated 315 stores in 19 states.

A year later, Belk closed the Parisian store at the mall.

In March 2008, The Shoppes at River Crossing, a 750,000-square-foot open air shopping center opened on Riverside Drive in north Bibb County. At that time, Dillard’s opened a second store there.

Four months later, foreclosure proceedings began against Macon Mall because of nonpayment of loan debt. In September 2010, Hull Storey Gibson announced it had purchased the mall. Planned renovations included demolishing the east wing, which was added in the 1997 expansion.

In October 2008, Macon Mall was dealt another blow when Arkansas-based Dillard’s announced it would close its mall store.

That same month, Belk held a grand opening of its second store at River Crossing. The 133,200-square-foot store was a little smaller than its mall store, which has about 150,000 square feet of space.

In December 2011, Sears announced it was leaving the mall.

Mall getting new look, new tenants

Macon Mall’s renovation and demolition work is giving the mall a fresh, albeit smaller, look.

Old tiles were ripped up and replaced with new carpet throughout the mall corridor. Historic scenes of Macon and Bibb County are hung on the corridor walls. Hundreds of pendant light fixtures set a softer tone, and skylights were replaced.

The stairs and escalator in the food court were removed, and kiosks that cluttered the interior were trimmed from a dozen to one to give a clear line of sight.

On the outside, the demolition of the east wing is nearly complete, and J.C. Penney will soon get a new facade and parking lot.

The mall’s newest tenant, Smok’n Pig BBQ, is about two weeks away from opening its 15,000-square-foot restaurant that will seat about 450 people.

More tenants have a strong interest in locating in the mall, Gibson said last week. Multiple tenants have offers to take about 60,000 square feet of space, but Gibson couldn’t disclose who they are until negotiations are competed.

The mall intends to complement stores downtown and at River Crossing, he said.

“We are going to bring other kinds of retailers to the market and offer the people of Macon some alternatives they otherwise would not have,” Gibson said.

Gibson and his partners knew what they were getting into when they bought Macon Mall. Part of Hull Storey Gibson’s business plan is purchasing struggling malls and turning them around. The company now owns 18 malls across the country and purchased a troubled mall as recently as Tuesday in Danville, Va.

To contact writer Linda S. Morris, call 744-4223. To contact writer Harold Goodridge, call 744-4382.

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